Economy and Education & Workforce Development and Technology

PETER SCHNITZLER Commentary: Embrace India while you still can

February 27, 2006

PETER SCHNITZLER

Commentary Embrace India while you still can

India will fool you, if you don't pay attention.

The term "developing nation" doesn't begin to do it justice. Having traveled internationally a number of times before, I thought I was prepared for whatever culture shocks awaited more than 8,000 miles away. I anticipated the heaving crowds, the livestock in the crumbling streets, even the abject poverty.

I didn't expect innovation. And especially not entrepreneurship on par with the kind found in Silicon Valley, or even Indianapolis. But it's there in abundance.

You can easily miss it. From a tourist's perspective, India could be a blur of Hindu temples, street bazaars, British relics and the Taj Mahal. Worse, from your armchair at home, India is just a television travelogue, one of the hundreds of exotic foreign destinations you flip past in search of another sitcom rerun.

But speak to a few of the highly educated people behind India's booming economy, and you'll soon realize appraising India by its surface alone is like judging the United States on a visit to the Statute of Liberty and a New York flea market.

India has a wealth of people just as smart, talented and motivated as anybody you'll find on an American university campus or at Eli Lilly headquarters. In a population of more than 1 billion, it takes an effort to spot them. But how quickly would you find Sidney Taurel in an RCA Dome crowd?

Listen to the ambitions of young Indian computer programmers or laboratory researchers. Their parents were middle-age by the time they owned houses or cars, let alone cell phones. Many of India's elite were educated here. Their new business plans aren't so different from what you'll find in any of our technology incubators.

Eager Indians want what you've already got. And with a smile and a bow, they'll work as hard as it takes to earn it.

Indiana must compete globally. Developing nations like India have the same high-tech aspirations we do-with a larger supply of talent, available at far cheaper rates. So what will Indiana businesses do?

Ignoring India is an all-too-probable possibility. As Indiana's resident high-tech guru Scott Jones told me, "There's 6 million people in this state; 5.9 million of them don't have a freaking clue what's going on over there."

New protectionist measures aren't likely to help. Globalization is about removing tariffs and market barriers, not erecting new ones. To promote business growth, Al Hubbard, President Bush's chief international economic adviser, counsels improvements to our school system along with reductions in taxes and regulations.

"The key for Indiana is ... to make itself more competitive so it can face any and all challenges in the future," he said.

The solution seems to be figuring out how to make India work to our advantage. Its growing middle class is hungry to buy products and services. If we don't supply them, somebody else will.

Those middle class consumers can also be our business partners. When Indians write our software and process our tax returns, ideally that allows Americans to focus our energies on creating new businesses and technologies. If we speculate on India's blossoming entrepreneurs, we can plow the profits into industries that today exist only on the drawing board.

But it only works if we commit to the idea that education lasts a lifetime. It's not something you do while you're young, then quit. And U.S. citizenship doesn't entitle anybody to a permanent job.

With the prospect that even our high-tech work could one day be outsourced to India or other developing nations, I asked Purdue University President Martin Jischke what advice he'd give an incoming freshman to ensure a career that lasts a lifetime.

"Learn about the world. Study other languages. Understand the structure of the global economy. Become a globally knowledgeable person," he said. "Clearly, these global issues are going to have an enormous impact on all of us, personally and professionally. While these changes can be threatening and disorienting, I think they're best seen as opportunities. Those who seize them will do very well indeed."

There's much more to emerging India than cows and call centers. Embrace it before you miss the chance.



Schnitzler is a reporter for IBJ. To comment on this column, send e-mail to pschnitzler@ibj.com.
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